When a little girl is repeatedly teased and hurt by a boy in the schoolyard or classroom, a well-meaning adult inevitably brushes off the bully’s behaviour by saying, “He must like you.” In her new young-adult novel, Danielle Younge-Ullman draws a direct line from the first time a girl hears those words to how she might react as a teen when confronted with workplace harassment or date rape.
Younge-Ullman shows how part-time jobs and young-adult sexual relationships are minefields for teen girls. At her restaurant job, Libby is trying to avoid the host, whom she had a drunken hookup with, despite telling him that wasn’t how she wanted the evening to go. He cluelessly thinks the night was a success and chivalrously gives Libby the table with the biggest tipper in town. But she (and all the other female servers) knows that the tip comes only when you let the moneybags customer paw, leer, and make sexually inappropriate remarks. When Libby stands up to the creep – who happens to be a powerful member of the community – the job that she desperately needs is threatened.
The workplace scenes feel real, raw, and exhilarating; unfortunately there are just two of them, bookending the story. In between, Libby examines her feelings about a pair of recent sexual encounters, seeks out help, and eventually confronts the guys. The writing in this part of the novel – as Libby comes to understand how her consent was ignored or coerced – is a bit didactic, but the messaging is on-point and necessary.
What is surprising about this book is the power of its secondary plot lines. There is a love story happening for Libby, with a guy who gives her space as she works through some traumatic recent events, and Younge-Ullman impressively keeps that aspect of the story small and quiet. The most unexpected drama involves Libby’s family – in particular her father, who has lost Libby’s college fund and has a reputation as the town hothead. As that story develops, his behaviour becomes as reprehensible as the big-tipping groper’s.
Younge-Ullman has done due diligence in creating an important issue book that addresses rape culture and workplace harassment. Yet she’s kept the narrative entertaining and distinctive by going outside of the formulaic box when it comes to the love story and the familial themes. And she’s made a convincing argument to permanently shelve the phrase “He must like you” – which has encouraged far too many generations of young girls to downplay male aggression.